Halloween Meets Día de Los Muertos at the Pioneer Farms

By Richard Lopez

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Jourdan-Bachman Pioneer Farms, a living history museum located in northeast Austin, opened its gates to the public last Friday and Saturday night for its 23rd Annual Halloween Haunted Trails Festival. The historic farm served as a spooky setting for storytelling, live music, and a “haunted” trail dark enough to make an adult nervous. It’s a perfect family setting (if your plan is to make your kids face their fears).

         However, the part of the festival that seemed to stick out from the rest of it was the Día de Los Muertos section where visitors would come in and learn about the Mexican holiday as they drew on sugar skulls, hearts, and, oddly, potatoes provided by the volunteers. The activity seemed very elementary, but as one volunteer put it, “adults love this stuff too.” Volunteers spoke of their experiences with the holiday and elaborated on the ofrenda set up in the room.

The ‘ofrenda’ set up at the Halloween Haunted Trails Festival

         Evangelina Mangino, the volunteer coordinator at Pioneer Farms, explained how she became in charge of the Día de Los Muertos by mentioning her disdain for the usual Halloween traditions. “I hate Halloween… a day where everyone tries to frighten each other for no reason.” She mentions that the usual Halloween festivities includes a view of death that is very different from the Día de Los Muertos perspective. “When you even mention death, people don’t want to talk about it or they’re scared of it,” she elaborates. “but Día de Los Muertos is about celebrating the life lived.”

         Mangino wasn’t previously very interested in the Día de Los Muertos traditions, such as the ofrenda, “I used to never set one up.” She said that her not celebrating the holiday was a point her sister-in-law would tease her about. “She asked to put up a picture of my mother on her ofrenda instead,” Mangino recounted. It wasn’t until she watched Coco last year that she started to appreciate the holiday more. “When I watched that movie, I cried,” she said as she laughed. Mangino even mentions that she cried even more as she watched it again, “it was an exponential thing,” she joked. She mentions that the sister-in-law who teased her about not celebrating the holiday happened to be traveling last year so she couldn’t set up an altar. “I told her I’d put up her mother’s picture up on an ofrenda for her.”  This meant Mangino was excited when the festival came around this year. “When they [Pioneer Farms] said we were doing something for Día de Los Muertos this year I immediately said I’d do it.”

Mangino also expanded on how she stepped up to be a volunteer coordinator when the farm lacked someone in the position. She had first volunteered fifteen years ago where her job was to hand out pamphlets. “I never got called back.” Mangino says that without anyone coordinating, others had the same experience as she did. She recounts that when she came back ten years after her first time volunteering “there was like no one around.” This was when she had a realization. “They [Pioneer Farms] had no volunteer coordinator!” She then took on the position of volunteer coordinator and began to make some changes to how the place was operating. She explained how one of these changes was that she started the practice of repurposing Goodwill clothing to be appropriate to use by the volunteers on the late 19th century farm. “Costumes can’t have front pockets,” she explains due to them not being invented until the early 20th century.

In fact, the farm’s operations seemed to have improved, according to Mangino, due to Claire Steffen coming in as the new Director of Experiences. “She has a background where she worked with museums,” Mangino explains. She said the person in charge before Steffen was an individual who had more of a farming background. “He did the best he could,” noted Mangino while recounting shortcomings. In comparison, Steffen has a master’s degree in Museum and Field Studies from the University of Colorado Boulder. “She’s helped a lot,” notes Mangino before returning to her job tending to the Día de Los Muertos activities.  

The Halloween Haunted Trails Festival will return for four more nights: October 25th-27th and Halloween night.

My personal Día de Los Muertos creations.